U.S. English Foundation Research

Language Research

2. Background: Background notes
Once the center of power for the large Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria was reduced to a small republic after its defeat in World War I. After its annexation to Nazi Germany in 1938 and the subsequent occupation by the victorious Allied powers, Austria’s 1955 State Treaty declared the country “permanently neutral” as a condition of the Soviet military withdrawal. The Soviet collapse relieved the external pressure to remain unaligned, but neutrality has evolved into a part of Austrian cultural identity, which has led to an ongoing public debate over whether Vienna legitimately can remain outside of European security structures. A wealthy country, Austria joined the European Union in 1995 and, like many EU members, is adjusting to the new European currency and struggling with high unemployment.

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Updated (December 2002)


Croatian, in the regional variant of Gradišansko hrvatski, is the second official language of the Austrian province of Burgenland, besides German.

Croatian, belonging to the southern Slavic language group, has been spoken in Burgenland since the 16th Century and developed into a standardized language in the late 19th Century. It differs somewhat from the Croatian language spoken in the Republic of Croatia.

Apart from Burgenland, where this language is spoken by approximately 30,000 people in fifty villages, there are about 12,000 speakers of Gradišansko hrvatski in Vienna, and around 10,000 in villages across the borders in Hungary and Slovakia.


For over hundred years the teaching of Croatian was closely linked with religious and political issues. It was originally promoted by the anti-liberal Viennese Habsburg court, in order to isolate the Croatian-speaking rural population from the liberal and anti-royalist Hungarian and German national movements. Croatian was taught in Catholic village schools, directly supervised by local priests, whilst teachers were employees of the Catholic congregation. In Burgenland this structure remained in place until 1938, when, following the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, all schools were nationalized and teaching in minority languages was generally abolished until 1945.

The reform of the Austrian school system in 1962, replacing the last four years of eight years in a primary school with four years in a lower secondary school, led to the effective abolition of Croatian education after the age of ten.

Croatian, which had previously functioned as the language of everyday life in the farming communities, became increasingly restricted to family life and Catholic Church functions.

The break-up of traditional family structures and the reduced role of Croatian in the new four-year primary education have greatly diminished the active transmission of Croatian within families.

Today, even if more and more parents actually want their children to learn Croatian, or at least do not mind if they do so, teachers deal with the pupils who can hardly speak the language, and are left to battle this process with educational means and legal provisions which they consider insufficient.

Source: Mercator Education, Regional Dossiers, the Croatian Language in Education in Austria, http://www1.fa.knaw.nl/mercator/regionale_dossiers/regional_dossier_croatian_in_austria.htm


Slovenian belongs to the southern Slavic language group and has been used in writing since the 16th Century (translation of the Bible). Geographical, cultural and historical factors have led to the development of an unusually large number of dialects with differences on the phonological and lexical level.


Basically the minority school system reaches back to the times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Schools were considered as means of homogenizing the heterogeneous population. Lessons in a mother tongue were introduced only in the first three grades of primary schools in order to enable pupils to follow lessons in the German language as soon as possible. Thus the Austrian school system was based on the German language and all other languages were considered merely auxiliary.

In 1938, Austria was annexed to the Third Reich. Minority schools were abolished and minorities were severely persecuted.

In 1945, lessons in minority languages were taken up again and a new school system was introduced. In the Slovenian speaking areas all subjects in primary schools were taught simultaneously in German and Slovenian and all pupils were supposed to learn both languages. But even in this period, from the third grade onward, German was the major medium of instruction, and Slovenian was taught only as a subject. However, this was the only part of the Austrian minority schools’ history when the minority language had some regional relevance for the majority population.

In 1958, due to German nationalist pressure, compulsory bilingual schooling was abolished and parents had to declare whether they wanted their children to learn Slovenian at school or not. Despite the fact that minority rights were granted by the Law on a Territorial Principle, somehow a personal declaration principle was introduced. Pressure was exerted on parents to remove their children from Slovenian lessons. The result was that after 1958 only about 20 percent of the children in the region attended bilingual lessons in primary schools. In subsequent years the number continued to fall, but since the late eighties there has been a new rise in the number of pupils attending bilingual schools.

Today 25 percent of the pupils in primary schools also learn Slovenian (according to the statistics of 1996/97). This increase is due to the social and political changes that took place in the early nineties, when the state border between Austria and Slovenia was no longer considered a frontier between two different political systems.

Source: Mercator Education, Regional Dossiers, the Slovenian Language in Education in Austria (Carinthia), http://www1.fa.knaw.nl/mercator/regionale_dossiers/regional_dossier_slovenian_in_austria.htm

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Updated (May 2003)

In Austria the following minority languages are spoken:

Burgenland-Croatian in Burgenland
Slovene in Carinthia and Styria
Hungarian in Vienna and Burgenland
Czech in Vienna
Slovak in Vienna
Romanes in Burgenland

More than 450 years ago, Croats settled in a region then defined as western Hungary (now Burgenland, the border region of western Hungary, parts of Lower Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). After 1848 the population in this region has started to develop a Croatian identity.

Today, about 30,000 Burgenland Croats (based on the estimate provided by this ethnic group) live in approximately fifty locations in Burgenland. About 12,000 Burgenland Croats live in Vienna. According to the 2001 national Census, a total of 19,374 Austrian nationals use Burgenland Croatian in everyday communication.


About 1,400 years ago, Slovenes (previously Slavs of the Alps) settled also in the territories of Carinthia and Styria. Due to the inflow and settlement of Bavarian and Franconian peasants starting in the 9th Century, the Slovenes were driven in a process of mutual assimilation to south and south eastern Carinthia as well as lower Styria.

In the 15th Century a linguistic border started to develop along the Carinthian towns of Hermagor, Villach, Maria Saal, Diex and Lavamünd, which remained intact until the mid-19th Century.

The development of tourism, industry and trade in the second half of the 19th Century fostered the use of the German language and nurtured assimilation. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the question to which state Carinthia should belong arose. The State Treaty of St. Germain laid down that two Carinthian regions populated exclusively or predominantly by Slovenes (i.e. Seeland and the Mieß valley) had to be ceded to Yugoslavia.

In the plebiscite held on October 10, 1920 with a crucial question whether south Carinthia should be a part of Austria or Yugoslavia, 59 percent favored Austria. Thus the Carinthian territory remained practically intact. Before the plebiscite (on September 28, 1920), the Provisional Regional Assembly of Carinthia had adopted a resolution which appealed to the Slovenes of Carinthia and committed itself “to preserve linguistic and national identity of the Slovene compatriots now and forever and to promote the prosperity of their intellectual and economic life in the same way as that of the German-speaking inhabitants of the Land.”

Estimates on the number of the Slovenes in Austria vary greatly. In the last Census in 2001, a total of 17,953 Austrian nationals stated to use Slovene as their language for everyday communication. According to the recent scientific research on the Slovene language proficiency conducted in the political districts of Carinthia, about 59,000 persons aged 15 and over have a varying degree of Slovene language proficiency. However, this does not necessarily mean that all these people are members of the Slovene ethnic group. The Slovene organizations alleged that currently there are about 50,000 Slovenes living in Austria.

Members of the Slovene minority also live in Styria.


The present Hungarian minority descends from early settlers who were in charge of protecting the western border for the Hungarian kings. These frontier guard settlements can still be found along the Hungarian border as reflected in the village names such as Oberwart and Siget in der Wart (“Wart” is an obsolete German term for “guard”). When Burgenland became a part of Austria in 1921, the Hungarians living in this region became a minority.

While in the interwar period this ethnic group maintained close contacts with Hungary, the situation changed after World War II. The social changes as well as the Iron Curtain had an adverse impact on the status of Hungarian as the first language and resulted in a strong linguistic assimilation, a trend counteracted only by intensified private education movement. Today many of those aged between 30 and 60 do not speak Hungarian.

The fall of the Iron Curtain has had a very favorable effect on the Hungarian minority in Burgenland because it became easier to maintain contacts with Hungary. The linguistic identity of the Burgenland Hungarians has been strengthened.

The present settlement area comprises the regions of Oberwart (Oberwart, Unterwart and Siget in der Wart) and Oberpullendorf (Oberpullendorf and Mittelpullendorf). Burgenland Hungarians live also in larger villages and towns, e.g. Eisenstadt, Frauenkirchen. Moreover, Hungarian families have been living in Graz and Vienna for centuries.

According to the estimates provided by organizations of this ethnic group, around 20,000 to 30,000 Hungarians are currently living in Austria. In the 2001 Census, a total of 25,884 Austrian nationals stated to use Hungarian as a language of everyday communication.


Czechs have lived in Vienna since the days of King Premysl Otakar. In the late 18th Century, immigration was so massive that official announcements in the suburbs of Vienna had to be published also in Czech.

Czech immigration into Vienna peaked between 1880 and 1890, when more than 200,000 Czechs, the majority of them blue-collar workers and craftsmen, moved to the city. The Czech community in Vienna certainly had its heyday after the turn of the century. At that time, Vienna was “the second largest Czech city in the world” when more Czechs lived only in Prague.

Despite fierce political opposition, Vienna’s Czech community succeeded in founding the first independent Czech schools. Thanks to a wealth of Czech enterprises, crafts associations, cooperative societies, banks and newspapers as well as political parties but also an intense social life in countless associations, the Czechs living in Vienna were able to communicate exclusively in Czech in all spheres of everyday life.

After the two World Wars, two big waves of Czechs returning to their home country halved their numbers in Vienna. In the 1960s, a steady decline was recorded reaching its lowest point in 1968. However, the situation in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and 1969 forced many Czechs to emigrate to Vienna (10,000 Czech citizens applied for political asylum in Austria).

Those who remained in Austria in the 1950s split into two groups, one maintaining and the other, larger part, refusing the official contacts with communist Czechoslovakia. It was only in the 1990s, when the community was reconciled and agreed on common Advisory Council representing the entire Czech minority in the Federal Chancellery.

Currently about 20,000 Czechs live in Vienna. In the last population Census in 2001, 11,035 Austrian nationals stated to use Czech as their language of everyday communication.


The Austrian Slovaks are a small ethnic group who settled in this area many centuries ago. The first Slovaks lived in the eastern regions of Lower Austria between the 5th and 9th Century. Linguistic and ethnographic analyses indicate that Slovaks have populated these regions continuously (about one quarter of this ethnic group lives in Lower Austria).

However, the majority of Slovaks, i.e. about two thirds, are resident in Vienna. They also live in Upper Austria and Styria.

The highest number of Slovaks living in Austria (about 70,000) was recorded around 1900, with most of them living in Vienna and the Marchfeld region (Lower Austria). Then the Slovak population declined sharply (around 1914 to 20,000 and in 1923 to only 4,802). Since then there has been a steady decline. In the 2001 Census, a total of 3,343 Austrian nationals stated to use Slovak as their habitual language of communication. Out of this number 1,412 persons lived in Vienna. However, according to the estimates by Slovak organizations the number of Slovaks in Austria is considerably higher (between 5,000 and 10,000).

By an amendment to the Ordinance promulgated in the Federal Law Gazette No. 38/1977 (Fed. Law Gazette 148/1992), Advisory Council was established for this minority on July 21, 1992.

Source: Council of Europe, Initial Periodical Report by Austria presented to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in accordance with Article 15 of the Charter, January 23, 2003, http://www.coe.int/t/e/legal%5faffairs/local%5fand%5fregional%5fdemocracy/regional%5for%5fminority%5flanguages/documentation/1%5fperiodical%5freports/2003_5e_MIN-LANG%20PR_Austria.asp

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Updated (February 2004)


Regarding their origin, the Hungarians living in the Republic of Austria can be divided into two main groups. The indigenous Hungarian community of Burgenland, which was brought under Austrian jurisdiction by the Trianon Peace Treaty, signed at the close of World War I, constitutes the first group. The second group consists of refugees and immigrants who settled down primarily in Vienna and the surrounding areas as well as in the provincial centers of Austria.

Hungarians have been living in Austria since the battle of Mohács (1526). According to the 1910 Census, there were 215,390 Hungarians residing in Lower Austria, of whom 10,399 were Csángos from Bukovina. Almost 140,000 Hungarian citizens (71.3 percent of the total Hungarian population) resided in Vienna. Following the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the number of Hungarians decreased considerably.
In 1944/45, a large number of political and economic refugees arrived in Austria and after the 1956 Revolution the second big wave came (181,000). The steady flow of Hungarian “economic refugees” had continued from the 1960s onward and thousands of ethnic Hungarians from Yugoslavia and Romania arrived in the 1980s.

Since the 1989 change of political regime in Hungary, the Hungarian Embassy in Vienna has developed an unbiased and correct relationship with Austria’s Hungarian communities.

(Figure 1 Hungarians in Burgenland)
Assimilation left a strong imprint on Burgenland’s Hungarian community. The opinion, which says that assimilation of the Hungarian community in Burgenland is an entirely spontaneous process, cannot be considered as fully reliable. For a considerable length of time, the difficulty of maintaining contacts with Hungary, the greater frequency of mixed marriages, and the insufficiency of Hungarian-language instruction were significantly contributing factors. Additional factors were the breaking up of the traditional, agriculture-oriented family structures and the new employment possibilities in urban centers (Vienna, Graz, Wiener-Neustadt, etc.) outside of the Hungarian-language areas.

Source: The EU Accession Monitoring Program (EUMAP), a program of the Open Society Institute, http://www.htmh.hu/reports2002/austria2002.htm

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Updated (December 2004)


There is still room for hope that the second attempt of the Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, to find a lasting solution in favor of the bilingual signs for national minorities will be successful. His decision to call a consensus conference on additional bilingual signs has met both with positive and negative reactions from politicians across the country.

The strongest supporters of the Slovene minority, the Greens, welcomed such a move; however, they demanded the opposition and a number of interest groups to be present at the conference.

In 2005, Austria will celebrate the 60th anniversary of liberation from Nazism (1945), as well as 50 years since it has regained its independence as a result of the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, which included a clause on the protection of minorities and bilingual topography.

The first attempt to put up bilingual signs in the 1970s failed when most of them were destroyed within several days. According to the legislation signed in 2000, in the municipalities where minorities constitute more than 25 percent of the population bilingual signage can be used. However, a recent decision of the High Court declared the 25 percent threshold unconstitutional.

Since the representatives of the Slovene minority have very different expectations, they will probably meet up before the conference to decide on a common approach.

The FPÖ, the strongest political force of Carinthia, continues to reject the erection of any additional bilingual signs. The Carinthian governor, Jörg Haider, went even further; arguing that because the number of Slovenian speaker is on the decrease, some signs should be removed1. Several Austrian politicians want to make additional minority protection dependent on a formal recognition of the German-speaking minority in Slovenia. However, commentators agree that the outcome of the conference will mainly depend on the unity of the Slovenes and willingness of the FPÖ to compromise.

Source: Eurolang News, Vienna, November 29, 2004, by Peter Josika, http://www.eurolang.net/

1 However, as the FPÖ have already accepted additional 150 signs during the first consensus conference last year, these statements are generally considered to be scare tactics rather than having any real value.

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Updated (May 2005)


Although currently the Czech language is spoken almost exclusively in Vienna, a hundred years ago Czech speakers lived in many localities of Lower Austria.

The rights of the Vienna Czechs were confirmed in the 1976 so-called Law on Ethnic Groups since the Treaty of 1955 had not mentioned them (nor the Hungarians). During the inter-war period bilateral relations between Austria and Czechoslovakia, especially in reference to education, were established through the 1920 Brunner Treaty based upon the Treaty of St. Germain1.

Until the Second World War the Viennese authorities used all sorts of maneuvers to hinder the process of the revival of Czech education and culture. However, in the course of the last decades the Viennese authorities and the Czech minority have collaborated for the benefit of both parties, particularly in the field of education.


In 1872, the Czechs of Vienna founded the Komensky Scholarly Association, which assured financing of a private Czech education system. Between the two World Wars public schools offered also Czech-language classes.

Present students are linguistically heterogeneous, consisting of the children of the Vienna Czechs, the children of immigrants from Czechoslovakia and also some who do not have a Czech origin (Germanophones, Greeks and others). The languages of instruction are Czech and German. The teachers responsible for Czech-language classes must prove an excellent command of both Czech and German. The German courses are taught with the assistance of a German language colleague.

At the University of Vienna it is possible to obtain a diploma or a teaching certificate in Slav or Bohemian studies. In total, about 110 students are enrolled in the different combinations of Bohemian studies (where about 35 follow the teaching certificate stream). About ten candidates completed their teaching studies in the last two academic years; however, the chance to find employment is very limited since there are only a few schools (in the north of Austria) where Czech is taught.

Source: European Commission, the Euromosaic Study, Czech in Austria, last updated February 4, 2005, http://europa.eu.int/comm/education/policies/lang/languages/langmin/euromosaic/au5_en.html

The 1867 Constitution did not recognize Czech as an autochthonous language and there was also no official recognition of Czech schooling under the Hapsburg monarchy.